If you build it, will they shop?

Tyler Cowen points to an interesting article on “food deserts” in low-income neighbourhoods and their alleged correlation to obesity:

But two new studies have found something unexpected. [Poor urban] neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

Gated versions of the studies (with public abstracts) are here and here.

My read on the studies — as reported by the NYT, a significant limitation — is that people tend to buy food that they enjoy and that’s easy to prepare, rather than the healthiest food they can find and afford.  Adding grass-fed beef and organic kale and bell peppers to an urban supermarket is therefore unlikely to have a noticeable effect on the general population’s diet.

More from the NYT:

It is unclear how the idea took hold that poor urban neighborhoods were food deserts but it had immediate appeal. There is even an Agriculture Department “food desert locator” and a “National Food Desert Awareness Month” supported by the National Center for Public Research, a charitable foundation.

If the food desert hypothesis isn’t a rational interpretation of the data, let’s see what happens if we apply Hanson’s Razor.  By framing the issue in terms of class and income, exponents of the food desert hypothesis create a “Rich Man’s Burden” narrative and signal their distaste for freed markets and corporations.  Of course, “food deserts” are built on the foundation of cheap fast food and expensive “real” food, and even our old friend Mark Bittman knows that just ain’t so.  It’s just another example of rich folks trying to insert themselves into a narrative as the good guys charging in to save the poor helpless… er, poor people from the terrifying spectre of putative market failure.

The more I think about it, the less the food desert hypothesis makes sense.  For one thing, I have a hard time with the idea that affluent do-gooders can really miss the core appeal of fast food — it’s tasty (generally hitting the hyperpalatability trifecta of sweet, salty, and fatty) and above all it’s convenient.  Surely this is why middle-class suburbanites order pizza or hit the drive-thru; why assume that residents of “poor urban neighbourhoods” are motivated at all differently?  (Besides the obvious reasons, I mean: If you want to create a narrative of Activists Saving The Day it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that poor urbanites are passively helpless.)  For another, if the central market failure here is that poor urbanites can’t afford to buy enough healthy food to make it profitable for supermarkets to operate in their neighbourhoods, how could coercing supermarkets to operate in their neighbourhoods possibly help?  (Fortunately, according to Dr. Lee’s paper it turns out that plenty of supermarkets do operate in poor urban neighbourhoods, so the question is moot.)

But having spent upwards of 500 words on the study itself, what I really wanted to do was direct your attention to the comment thread over at Marginal Revolution, which has about the highest signal-to-noise ratio I’ve ever seen on that site.  It includes commentary from a researcher working on a similar project, and pokes holes in most of the usual shibboleths (“junk food is too easy to get”, “junk food is too cheap”, “‘Bodega’ sounds foreign so it must be bad”, &c.) that Caring People like to bring to the table when discussing other people’s obesity.

Update: Lulzy!  (And… dumbworms tag.)


2 Responses to “If you build it, will they shop?”

  1. 1 kbiel
    April 20, 2012 at 14:23

    This may sound crazy, but my guess is that people who make poor decisions in life regarding finances, work, and education also make poor decisions regarding food. (Yes I realize that not every poor urbanite is in their situation because they dropped out of school or decided that dealing drugs was a more lucrative career than selling shoes, but there sure seem to be a lot more drop outs and drug dealers among them.)

    • April 20, 2012 at 14:32

      Yeah, there’s definitely a Caplan-ish conscientiousness angle to be considered here, although I’m starting to get skeptical about the notion that poverty and obesity are highly correlated. (It occurs to me that most of the sources I’ve read claiming that position are the same kind that yammer on about food deserts and claim that saturated fat is teh debil.)

      Oh, oh! Longitudinal study of incidence of metabolic syndrome on #Occupy protesters! Come on, someone write up an abstract and send it to NIH to see if they’ll fund it.

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